Alignments in Practice

The discipline of openness

The discipline of the path

‘It takes tremendous effort to work one’s way through the difficulties of the path
and actually get into the situations of life thoroughly and properly.’

– Chogyam Trungpa, from Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism


When we hear the word ‘discipline’ we usually understand it to mean forcing ourselves into doing things against our will and our instinct. We feel we have to hold our breath lest we slip up or make a mistake, until we get to that goal the discipline is supposed to help us achieve. But in fact, this kind of discipline is only an obstruction to cultivating soul and being on the spiritual path: we cannot feel ourselves and our world properly. When we discipline ourselves in this way, we are really driven by a fantasy or underlying belief-system that James Hillman calls heroism,π

The discipline of the path

which he points out is a fundamental fantasy of ego. The discipline of the spiritual path is very different from this: it is the discipline of openness. It is worthwhile to stop and consider this for a moment: ‘the discipline of openness.’ ... We open ourselves in every moment to what our experience is right now: our feelings, our sensations, what is going on inside us; we open ourselves to meet, encounter and engage whatever challenges the world presents to us in this moment; and we open ourselves to others, to whomever present themselves to us, to whatever demands or challenges they present us with. This discipline is the foundation of being on one’s path; it is the essence of our daily practice and bringing our practice to every moment.

But what does it mean ‘to open’? Pema Chodron points out that we all have our own personal idea of what it means ‘to open’ but that it is quite difficult to know what this truly means. This kind of vagueness gives leeway to ego to rationalise that what we already habitually do along our conditioned tracks is indeed ‘opening’, or conversely to beat us up because we are not opening sufficiently enough! And so it is helpful that Chodron shares her insight that in contrast to ‘openness’ we all know what ‘closedness’ means; we all know those moments when we close down. So, the discipline of openness consists of catching ourselves in those moments and to stop closing, to ‘surrender into the stretch’ as a yoga instructor may say. That is, surrendering into the ‘stretch’ or the pain of opening to exactly the very thing that we are busy closing down to. In other words, the discipline of openness involves letting go of the resistances in us that close us down from feeling ourselves properly and from staying open to the world and others. Another image that describes the feeling of doing this, is that ‘we dissolve our hardnesses’. Chogyam Trungpaπ says that the discipline of openness functions like the sun; the same way the sun shines uninhibitedly without holding back. We learn to let go of those resistances that would reserve our openness only for places that feel comfortable or ‘make sense’ to us. ‘Opening’ is how we cultivate a soft, raw, sensitive, tender, awakened heart, which is a requirement before we can even begin to 'make soul'.

Meditative awareness

Our discipline of openness quickly becomes stale if we try doing it as an isolated technique. It is most definitely a very useful place to start the journey, to take the first steps of opening onto our spiritual path, while at the same time remaining one of the practices that can anchor one enduringly on that path. But just as beautifying, animating and enlivening physical space involves relationships between multiple objects in the space, ‘to make soul’ involves a wide variety of ‘objects,’ processes and practices that form an intricate web of interconnectedness that at some point mysteriously starts to ‘constellate’ soul. The discipline of openness will only truly facilitate this alchemy to start happening if we are practicing meditation.π What is called meditative awareness gradually starts to develop in us as we start to meditate regularly. We increasingly learn ‘to come back to the breath’ not only on our meditation cushion but also in our interactions with the world and others. ‘Coming back to the breath,’ here means learning to become fully present with oneself while being fully present with and open to others. In time meditative awareness begins to permeate and form the background to our everyday existence. It is not something extraordinary; it really is simply being here, now,


to be fully and deeply present with what is. Meditative awareness is a kind of ‘underlying layer’ to our discipline of openness; it really is part of being open and opening. To start with, our discipline here involves that when we catch ourselves closing or ‘being in our heads,’ we come back to feeling our breath right here, wherever we are in our world. And on the outbreath, we open. So you find yourself hardening ... come back to the breath and dissolve into being present. You find yourself speeding up ... come back to the breath and slow down into being present.

Eventually, as our spiritual workπ deepens, meditative awareness gradually begins to simply be there rather than us needing to go back to it all the time. Presence starts to constellate. We are less and less ‘sped around by our minds’ and become increasingly adept at using mind simply as the tool it is. Which means, we can put it aside after it has served its purpose. Only when we're able to do this and when we have learned to act and be without words in our heads, can we rest in the knowledge that we are no longer in the clutches of that parasitic demon by which almost everyone in our world today is possessed: identification with mind.π We then start to experience what teachers call ‘spaciousness’. We have space inside to be quiet and to receive ‘what is’ without words, without noise, and to respond skilfully.


Somewhere along this journey we discover what Trungpa refers to as ‘echoes,’ which are an element of meditative awareness. Chodron aptly describes these echoes as ‘atmospheric’ rather than an echoing voice in words. While we practice the discipline of openness, an echo may arise to tell us we’re shutting down, or we’re speeding up, or we’re hardening. At some point we find ourselves noticing these echoes. And then as part of our discipline, we learn to heed them. For example, when someone is aggressive towards you, you may notice a deeply painful feeling reaction inside you along with a ‘sense’ that ‘if I react in my usual way, I am only going to escalate the situation’. This initial painful feeling and the accompanying ‘sense’ is an echo. Heeding the echo means you stay with that initial painful feeling and you don’t escalate the situation. You pause. You open to the initial gut-feeling and become intimate with it. You befriend it. You stay in the feeling of it. At this very raw initial point in any process you actually have a choice: to allow yourself to be taken by the tide of ego that obsessively builds layers and layers of (usually mental) gunk on top of that basic raw experience. Or you can learn to not hook into the reactivity, to simply stay with the energy of the raw impact, and to learn to work with it in ways that are conducive of soul-making. The further you escalate, the more entangled you get and the more difficult it is ‘to make your way back’. Instead we can learn to open and connect intimately to the feelings inside us and to respond in more skilful ways to situations – we can learn to let things unfold into a whole different direction.

This example just given illustrates how echoes function on a basic level, but as we become more rooted in a culture of ‘making soul,’ they become fundamental to what is referred to as ‘doing our imaginal work’.π These kind of echoes come to us for many reasons, often without being triggered by any event or anything we’ve done, thought or imagined, from the deepest caverns of our own personal history as well as from places beyond what our consciousness have encountered during our lives, and often for ‘reasons’ that have nothing to do with ‘our personal territory’. Soul draws us to her, for her own ‘reasons’, to meet her beyond the place where life is lived only in terms of what makes sense. But these echoes can only come to us if our minds are not filled with noise. On this level they are really the seeds of what we call ‘images’ – flirtingπ for our attention and interaction with us.

James Abbott McNeill

On a more practical ‘surface level,’ echoes appear to warn us that something in our world needs our attention or active response. They often do this without us having spent any conscious attention on 'the field' of our world where they are calling from. These practical echoes are hugely significant in that they are ‘the ones looking out for us.’ Which means they give us the space so that we can let go of constantly needing to calculate and control everything with our minds; that is, to become still and be present. This kind of letting go is the essence of the archetype of The Fool,π who both in Tarot and the I Ching, plunges over the edge into the abyss, and so begins the spiritual journey. So it is a significant key then, that what really helps us to let go is that our echoes 'catch' us. To give a simple example: while being present with washing dishes, an echo comes and reminds you to pack in essential documents for a meeting at work tomorrow.

Of course, it is important to understand that there is no guarantee that these echoes will ‘warn us’ when we feel they should. But in this lies the key to understanding the true meaning of faith. True faith is not the belief that some outcome I want will come true. Rather, it is faith in the journey, in the rightness of the journey. That it is ‘right’ that where this journey goes is partly determined by when the echoes come and when they don’t come. When they come, we heed them; that is, we take responsibility; we act according to our ability to respond and we accept the consequences. And if they didn’t come when we really felt we needed them to come, we surrender to the fact that ‘we are only co-creators of our world, of our reality’ and we accept wherever this ‘mistake’ takes us, which includes responsibility for the consequences and ‘learning to dance’ with whatever arises. We also discover that this makes the journey infinitely more interesting and soulful than the type of ‘traveling’ where we always predetermine our destination or our steps there are mostly plotted (which is not a ‘journey’ in the true sense of the word). The more deeply we are surrendered in this manner, the more uncanny events occur in ways that clearly demonstrate the presence of something organically creative beyond our personal will and intentions. Following this path we find our (miniscule, but deeply soulful and appropriate) place in this big universe of infinitely intricate and magical inter-connections. All the while practicing openness, to being fully present with ‘what is’ with meditative awareness.

The ability to respond

The art of responsibility is shaped and refined in us without end. This responsibility is a further element of the discipline of the spiritual path. Trungpa calls this aspect of discipline ‘psychological accuracy and skilful means.’ As Chodron points out, what Trungpa translates as psychological accuracy is called prajna in Sanskrit, which really cannot be translated into any one word or phrase. Prajna develops naturally as we learn to meet and engage our world increasingly with openness and meditative awareness. It ‘appears’ as part of our awareness when we have opened into the kind of spaciousness where we no longer are slaves to our basic knee-jerk reactions to accept, reject or be neutral to whatever we encounter. When we have become simply open. Inside this spaciousness it is as if time stretches and we are able to deeply feel our environment and ‘the energies’ of others. Our senses are sharper. Our echoes are acutely precise and bring us pertinent information at key moments. Prajna really means we see clearly.

Skilful means entails the simple and precise action that follows naturally on such clear seeing. In other words, we’re open and we receive whatever we encounter without any prejudice, and so we feel deeply into what is, and are moved into acting appropriately. In Taoism, this is what is called Wu Wei,π or ‘action through non-action’, which is to say, egoless action. The ‘discipline’ here, really is for us ‘to step out of the way’ and allow what is natural to move us into action while being fully present with what we’re doing. This involves the same faith mentioned in the previous section. Trungpa says prajna and skilful means function like a bow and arrow: the bow of prajna is gentle, while the arrow of skillful action is sharp and 'crisp' in its flight and precision. The bow provides stability and support for the quiet, effortless and skilful release of the arrow and its swift and precise flight hitting the target. It is significant then to notice that true responsibility does not develop because of our willpower or our commitment, but through the development of meditative awareness that is rooted in surrender, in letting go of always controlling everything mentally.